Lessons from 2017: The Gospel Changes Everything

 

2017 was a mixed bag,
With the good and the bad.

We started the year with our plans laid right,
And ended the year with the Lord’s plan in sight.

I learnt patience and grace,
While I coached my kids for a 3 km race.

Words of encouragement will do the trick,
While yelling and screaming will make you sick.

I learnt to forgive freely and release the pain,
Knowing that my Saviour has forgiven me much again and again.

While dementia claimed my mother in law here,
Fact is, she is now with her Saviour dear.
And as we laid her casket low,
I learnt that death is a defeated foe.

By the middle of the year our plans were set to fail,
But the Lord lead us to a far better  trail.

I learnt to trust Him and His grace,
It is more than sufficient in this race.

Many lessons flash by this year,
But, there is one that stands clear,
And it is that:
The Gospel changes everything.

The Gospel changes everything
Does something new inside of me.
Teaches me to trust,
And to let go.
Urges me to love,
Like the Father above.
Gives hope when surrounded by fear;
Cause I know his coming is near.
For now the gospel is changing me
From who I was to who I’ll be.

The Story of my Saviour calls,
To lay aside my fears and faults.
Yes, His eyes are on my very being,
For the Gospel changes everything!

 

 

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

Startling Obedience, Simple Joy

 

It’s not often that an auditor with an MBA from the U.S. changes career paths to become a Montessori teacher.

It’s even less likely that they would start a preschool in India with the sole purpose of reaching out to underprivileged children.

But, then again, Saraswathi Padmanabhan, is not one of those you meet often. Her unique passion and plain, old-fashioned obedience to God are startling in today’s “me first” world.

Saraswathi’s many accomplishments and talents come packaged in an unassuming personality. She has absolutely no airs about her.

You’ll have to dig around to discover that she has a degree from the prestigious BITS Pilani. Or that she has an advanced degree in accounting from California. Or that she worked in Silicon Valley for close to four years.

But while all of that is impressive, what is most amazing is that she and her husband Shyamal, a software engineer, said goodbye to the American Dream and committed to living out God’s vision for them in India.

At the heart of that vision was children.

“Even from when I was a teenager, I knew I would adopt kids,” says Saraswathi. “In fact, before we got married that was one of the conditions I gave Shyamal,” she laughs.

First, they adopted their son, Joshua. Three years later, they became a family of five, adopting two baby girls, Neha and Riya, just seven months apart in age.

Not long after their move to Bangalore, Saraswathi noticed that in the shadows of corporate highrises families huddled together under makeshift blue tarps. They were India’s construction workers. While they had literally built the city, they had no place to call home. Saraswathi’s heart broke for the children of these labourers who were often left unsupervised, falling prey to abuse or accidents.

“They would roam the streets or sit in construction sites and have nothing to do all day,” she recollects.

On weekends, she would walk down to the blue tarp settlements with food. That act of kindness would have ticked off the “charity” box for most people. But not for Saraswathi. Handouts were great, but she was called to do more.

“My vision was to provide a safe place for those children,” she says. “The big shift happened when we had our own children. We knew we had to do something about the neglect. We had to provide those precious kids the opportunity to be protected, to have a good life.”

She and Shyamal knew that God was prompting them to start a preschool for the children of the construction workers.

Armed with that motivation, Saraswathi shelved her Excel spreadsheets and decided to study Montessori education.

She wasted no time in getting her dream going. Just two days after she wrapped up her Montessori course, she opened the doors of Diya Ghar, a Montessori preschool for children of construction workers.

There was no big board meetings, no formal vision statement, no five-year business model. In fact, to start with, there weren’t even children. But there was faith.

Saraswathi rented a house in an area close to where she had seen migrant worker settlements. She gradually won the trust of the parents, convincing them that she would personally take care of their children.

The school started with five students.

Saraswathi would pick up the children from their homes, bring them back to Diya Ghar and start their day with a good breakfast. She had little uniforms made for the kids. Bright red t-shirts and tiny black pants.

She remembers one of her first students Swetha, a four-year-old who bore the incredible responsibility of supervising her two siblings. Swetha would carry her baby sister on her hip all day long. Her little brother would play near her, next to piles of bricks and cement.

But all that changed when Swetha and her brother became Diya Ghar’s first students. They began getting two hot meals a day. They had the opportunity to learn letters and numbers and rhymes. They had the chance to play on the bright yellow slide set in the front entrance of the school.

They had the chance to hear that God loves them.

By the end of the second month, the school had gone from 5 kids to 20.

Less than two years later, Saraswathi is poised to open Diya Ghar to 60 children in a new school facility. Yes, it’s a big, bold venture. She has no idea how the money will come in. Or how she will manage to arrange transport for them, feed them two meals a day, teach using relatively expensive Montessori materials and employ more teachers to invest in the children.

But she trusts an unknown future to a known God.

“It’s always been close to my heart that God came to give us life, a life of abundance. We should be enjoying life. I want these children to have the joy of education,” she says.

In every interaction with every child, Saraswathi shares that effervescent, God-given joy.

You may not be able to guess at her qualifications right away. But there’s no ambivalence about the fact that she loves each child who walks into Diya Ghar. There is absolutely no doubt that the eyes of each child shine with the joy of learning and the freedom of just being kids.

 

Photo by EJ Yao on Unsplash

Servant and Steward

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. – 1 Corinthians 4:1

In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul is writing to clear up misconceptions within the body and to unify the church and give them guidelines for how apostles were to see themselves, as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The letter was written because worldliness was seeping into the lives of believers and causing divisiveness where there should have been unity and love. Seemingly, it is a letter even for the church today.

I read this passage last January and it has been on my heart ever since. It was like a personal invitation for me to seek Christ in every aspect of my life — to steward all of my resources and gifts to make Him known, and to serve Him by laying down my life for the gospel.

The phrase that immediately caught my attention when I first read this passage was “steward of the mysteries of God.” I’m not sure I have ever used anything close to that terminology to describe my responsibility to share the Gospel with the world. I think most would agree that our faith lends itself to many mysteries, not limited only to the fact that Christ died for us, but also that He came to Earth as a baby and lived among us as the Son of God and Son of Man. We are not the owners of these truths, but stewards, and stewards are responsible for looking after things for someone else.

Continuing in verse 2, he calls on stewards to be faithful. Faithful to the One who called them, and to the pure message of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Faithful in communicating that truth to a broken world. And faithful in living out the call Christ has on each of our lives.

The other part of this is being a servant of Christ. Christians go out into the world on His behalf. It’s a privilege and a joy to carry the message of freedom to others, but there are definitely times I lose sight of that fact because I lose sight of Christ’s sacrifice made for humanity on the cross.

But how is this a post for the season of Advent? I believe that Christmastime gives us the perfect opportunity to dwell upon and share one of the most outrageous parts of our story — the birth story of Christ. It is also the perfect time of year to serve others in extraordinary and life-changing ways by being present, sharing gifts, practicing hospitality. During the days leading up to Christmas, we can sharpen our sensitivities to the Spirit’s leading in expressing our faith in tangible ways to our family, friends, and neighbors. And hope that these sensitivities will carry on in the new year ahead with life-changing results.

It is a season for celebration, certainly. But I have also been struck this year that it is a season for earnest reflection on my own heart’s bent — am I walking in the call of both servant of Christ and steward of life-changing truth? Or am I simply living for myself and hoping God will bless whatever endeavours I want to be about — regardless of whether it is what God desires for His glory and my good?

Perhaps these are not questions we want to consider along with a chorus of Jingle Bells, but they are important nonetheless, even whilst we are sipping on our hot cocoa or gathering for Christmas parties or creating seasonal sweets.

So how do we live as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God? Small steps of faithfulness in our everyday can lead to tremendous heart-change over time. I would say the first step is to orient our thinking in a way that our identity is first aligned with being a follower of Christ and everything else can come after that.

My prayer for you, friend, is that in this season and in the New Year to come, you will take the call of servant and steward even more seriously than ever before so that the gospel is declared, and Christ exalted. Amen.

 

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

The Father’s Heart

The parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20: 1 – 16 was one which I never truly grasped. We all know the story: the owner of the vineyard hires workers at various hours of the day but, at the end, pays them all the same amount. It always stymied me, because I wondered why the owner seemed so unjust; unfair, even. And since Jesus drew an analogy comparing this to the Kingdom of God, it seemed even more incomprehensible.

Until recently when I heard this story being narrated to kids in our Sunday School and it suddenly fell into place. The truth hit me with blinding clarity. It was so simple and yet so profound.

The vineyard workers were upset with the owner for a very justifiable reason – they had worked and they deserved payment according to the effort and time they had put in. Their blood, sweat, and tears had to amount to something; that is probably what they thought. They definitely deserved more than those other guys who’d barely worked an hour! All logical, fair arguments.

Yet, the owner had a completely different perspective. He didn’t value their performance. He valued them. Each. of. them. And in His eyes, they were all of equal worth. Not their effort. Not the time they spent. Not the amount of work they did. But themselves.

It was humbling to realize that is how my Lord loves me. Although I try to “earn” His love by my performance, He is not impressed by it. And thank God for that! Unfortunately, I always try to bargain with God about how much I deserve to be in His kingdom because of what I may or may not have done. And all the while, God is saying, “My child, I love you. Just come. You don’t have to prove anything to me. I accept you.”

As I wondered why I always felt the need to pray, “Lord, what do you want me to do for You?” (aka the how-can-I-serve-You prayer), I realised that deep down, it was a matter of pride. I don’t like being beholden to anybody, even the God of the universe. I am a sinfully independent creature who’d rather crave a crutch of my own making to prop me as I totter on my feet. How unnecessary and foolish!

Instead, if I truly heard what God was saying, I would learn something rather different, for what Yahweh offers is liberty. The liberty to be with Him without having to earn my way there! There are no performance appraisals in His kingdom. When I stop measuring my worth based on my performance, I will stop comparing myself with others, for instance. I am free to not envy another’s ministry or gift because God has blessed them with it and ultimately, it glorifies the One we both love. So I can thank God for His goodness instead.

Another aspect of the parable that struck me was that there were several vineyard workers. They came in batches but there were a whole lot of them. And the owner saw them all the same way. I know that this is Christianity 101 – that Jesus came to die for all sinners — but I think that, for the first time, the magnitude of the multitude hit me. I mean, we are talking centuries and generations of humans! God loves every single human being – past, present, and future – exactly the same. He wants each one to come into His Kingdom. He grieves when even one soul is lost. Imagine that for a second. I was blown away! Here I was, pretty much happy to know that my family and I were going to spend eternity with God, when all the time, He is keeping the gates open for all humanity whom He loves to bits! I had such a narrow view of whom God loves until the barricades came down and the crowds came into view.

This is not something new. God has always loved all people – even those whom we’d consider to be undeserving of love and acceptance. Take Jonah and the people of Nineveh for example, of whom God says: “…should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left…” (Jonah 4:11).

So as I celebrate Christmas this year, my prayer is that I will stop focusing on myself and my family but rather look outward, with my Father’s perspective, to the multitude of people all around me who don’t have an inkling of the hope that is being held out to them. And instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this “outreach program,” I will instead step alongside God and pray that He will pour out revival on this land. That the Holy Spirit will fall on men and women, young and old, rich and poor, so that one day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10, 11)

 

Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

Appam and Chicken Stew

Sparkling streamers on the wall and a brightly lit Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. That was the modest decor of my childhood Christmas memories. Some years, we’d exchange neatly wrapped gifts with pretty bows and handmade greeting cards. Many other years, there would be no elaborate celebration. Often, it would just be a quiet day hanging out with the family. There really weren’t any consistent traditions that we followed.

But the one thing that strikes a special and distinct chord is Christmas morning in my mother’s kitchen. No matter what the rest of the day turned out like, we knew we would wake up to the aroma of chicken, cooking in a delightful mixture of spices, coconut milk and fresh curry leaves! And as accompaniment, there’d be hot, fluffy appams with crispy, lacy edges waiting to be polished off.

I have since then enjoyed several other Christmas breakfasts. Yet, my mum’s appam and chicken stew still hold a dear place in my heart. So this Christmas, I’d like to share her recipe with you.

I hope the celebration of the birth of our Savior brings joy, hope and comfort to you and your loved ones. Merry Christmas, y’all!!

Happy cooking!

Appam

Ingredients

2 cups raw rice, soaked for about 3 hours
1/2 cup cooked rice or poha
1/2 tsp yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup coconut milk
1 egg white, beaten well

Method

1. Mix yeast and sugar in lukewarm water.
2. Grind the soaked raw rice and the cooked rice or poha.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the ground rice batter. Mix well and keep aside for about 2 hours.
4. Add coconut milk to the batter and mix well again. Keep the mixed batter aside for about 6 hours (or overnight, if you plan to make the appam in the morning).
5. By now, the batter would have risen considerably in volume. Add a beaten egg white and salt and give it a final stir. Keep aside for about half an hour.
6. Pour a small ladle full of batter to the heated appam chatti or kadai. Rotate the appam chatti or kadai in a circular manner, so that the batter spreads well forming a slightly thick centre and thin lacy edges. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the centre is cooked. Scoop the cooked appam out onto a serving plate.

Chicken Stew

Ingredients

1/2 kg chicken, cut into medium sized pieces
2-3 medium onions, sliced thin
2 green chillies, slit lengthwise
1 tsp ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp garlic, finely chopped
1 medium potato, diced into small cubes
1 medium carrot, diced into small cubes
2 cloves cardamom
1 small stick cinnamon
2 cloves
2 cups thin coconut milk
1 cup thick coconut milk
1 tsp vinegar
oil
salt
curry leaves, fried onions/shallots (to garnish)

Method

1. Heat oil in a pan and crackle the spices — cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
2. Add ginger, garlic, onion and green chilies. Sauté till the onions become soft.
3. Add vinegar and mix for a few minutes.
4. Add the chicken pieces, carrot and potato and mix well.
5. Add the thin coconut milk. Mix well and do a salt check. Cover and cook until the chicken and the vegetables are done.
6. Reduce the flame and add the thick coconut milk. Cook for another 3-4 minutes and turn the flame off.
7. Garnish with curry leaves and fried onions. Serve hot with the appam!

A Picture, A Poem and A Song

I am a book lover and most of what captivates my thoughts, imagination and inspiration, especially relating to spiritual life, comes from writing in any form or words verbally expressed. Reading the Scriptures or reading books or even listening to people has been the primary source of contemplation and reflection for me. So when a work of art or a song speaks to me, it’s refreshing and unexpected.

I came across this picture a couple of years ago, shared by someone on Twitter and have since seen it in several places. The image has stayed with me over the years and keeps coming back to my mind especially at this time of the year. It is simple yet profound and pregnant (pun not intended) with meaning and hope.

 

Mary and Eve
Crayon & pencil drawing by Sr Grace Remington, OCSO
© 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey.

A poem accompanies the picture and eloquently expresses the expectation and joy that Jesus’ birth proclaims.

O Eve!

My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away,
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child,
Through whom all will be reconciled.
O Eve! My sister, my friend,
We will rejoice together
Forever
Life without end.

Sr Columba Guare
© 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey

The picture and poem capture the shame and brokenness that sin brings…but point also to the hope and restoration that the long awaited Messiah brings. Mary is able to console Eve because the Son she bears “will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) Jesus, through His life, death and resurrection is the one who crushes the effects and power of sin (Genesis 3:15).

The song, also inspired by the picture is a somewhat recent find. I heard it first just over two weeks ago and it’s on repeat on my playlist. It is part of a children’s advent album (even more unexpected for me, and if you’re looking for music for children this season I highly recommend it). You can listen to it here and I’m sharing some of the lyrics below –

Mary Consoles Eve
from Waiting Songs by Rain for Roots

Eve, my sister
The one who took the fall
Eve, my sister
Mother of us all
Lift up your head
Don’t hide your blushing face
The promised One
Is finally on His way

Eve, it’s Mary
Now I’m a mother too
The child I carry
A promise coming true
This baby comes to save us from our sin
A servant King, His kingdom without end

Almost, not yet, already
Almost, not yet, already

I love the refrain “Almost, not yet, already”… Christmas reminds us of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, Jesus sharing in our humanity, of all that He accomplished on our behalf through His death and resurrection, of all the “already” we experience.

But we still wait for complete restoration and the “not yet”. The tension of all that is “not yet” can sometimes be unbearable for me but Christmas also reminds me that God keeps His promises. The time gap between Eve and Mary is thousands of years, but God is at work throughout in His world, in shaping history and working through His people in bringing about His plan of salvation. The picture, poem and song have been instrumental this season in reminding me of what was, what is and what is to come.

And so as we live out our lives in His world, and we live out the “already”, may we find encouragement, hope and strength in this God who fulfils all His promises, who will accomplish all that is “not yet”, who walks with us through it all, lifts up our head from our brokenness and shame and consoles our hearts.

 Photo Credit: Unsplash

Lord Give Me a Bigger House Heart

My husband caught me staring into space earlier today, and asked, “What are you thinking about?”

“That our house is so small,” I replied.

“Other people live in still smaller homes,” he pointed out.

Two things: 1. Our house is medium, not small. 2. I like things to be a certain way, and it just isn’t… yet. My kitchen wall doesn’t have posters framed and hung, I haven’t found the perfect spot for my cake stands, the list could go on.

My husband and I are very different people. He doesn’t see the need to arrange books vertically, according to their size, in my daughter’s bookcase. As if there is another way to do it. So naturally, the fact that we had ordered two cupboards that didn’t match, kept side-by-side, did not bother him. It bothered me. By the time the monsoons rolled around, the cupboard I didn’t much care for got fungus on it. Absolutely disgusting. Then started the long drawn affair of getting the company to take the product back. I persevered. We finally got the cupboard picked up a few weeks ago, and ordered a matching cupboard! It just got assembled today. It’s perfect. I can see it standing here before me; finally where he belongs (it looks masculine).

God knows me. He knew I’d like having cupboards that match. And even though I didn’t pray for a new cupboard, He made it possible for me to have a pleasant view from my bed. Like times in the past, God reminded me that He cares about the little things I like. He also reminded me to let the little things be little things. Yes, it’s nice to have matching cupboards but it hasn’t changed my life. Similarly, non-matching cupboards, walls in need of fresh paint, or anything else, needn’t have a big impact either.

To be honest, most things in my life aren’t how they’d be in my dreams, but what I have is better, simply because it’s real. As Christmas approaches and I wonder what new decorations I should add this year, I’m reminded that Jesus wasn’t born in a fancy, five-star hospital, He didn’t grow up in a posh house in South Delhi, nor did He vacation in Hawaii. By Christ’s standards, I have a lot to be grateful for; by my neighbour’s standards, there is a lot lacking.

Thankfully, I’m not left without choice. And I’m choosing to be thankful. What if my house was destroyed for some reason and I had to live in as humble as humble conditions get… would I be the most miserable person on earth or would I still have the joy of the Lord? I have allowed my heart to get too used to the things of this world, temporary things of no eternal consequence. Yes, beauty must be enjoyed, as a means of pointing to it’s source, our Creator, not as an end in itself.

So here’s to praying for a bigger heart this season. A heart that soaks in God’s beauty, passes on God’s love, and is not fettered to fleeting pleasures.

 

Photo Credit : Unsplash 

The Christmas Tree Tradition

Ever since we came to Delhi, we have made setting up our family Christmas tree an exciting event for our kids. It’s something they start looking forward to from the beginning of November.

Now setting up the tree in itself can be quite a laborious and arduous task, (especially since we’ve had one of our children in the toddler stage every single time we’ve set it up!) but if you make a party out of it, then even the difficult task of untangling Christmas lights can be fun.

And so began our tradition of setting up the Christmas tree. Every year on November 25th, we set up our tree. We invite friends who don’t have family members close by, or just about anyone who likes to decorate a tree. With loud Christmas music playing in the background and excited kids running around, we set up our tree. My husband, being a perfectionist, will take down the lights and put them back on at least a dozen times before he smiles in satisfaction.

When everything is done and the last ornament is finally hung up, we all sit around the tree. We pass out chocolate chip cookies and steaming mugs of hot cocoa. Then we all settle down and my husband reads Luke 2:1-20 for us. He then explains to our kids why we actually celebrate Christmas. He talks to them about a helpless little baby born in a manger. About a teenager who obeyed the will of God and carried the child to term. About the shepherds who heard the good news and ran to see Jesus. About the angels who proclaimed the good news.

Then he asks them what they understood from the story. And it’s amazing to see how their understanding of Scripture has grown over the years. Finally, he explains to them that there is another tree that we remember at this time. More than the tree we just set up, it is that tree that gives us true joy and life. Jesus lived a perfect life, which we could never live, and on the cross, Jesus paid the ultimate penalty for our sins that we could never pay. And as we sit around our living room, the warm glow of the Christmas lights filling the room, the gospel just warms our heart to worship this Savour.

We have enjoyed this little family tradition of ours. What is something that you do as a family during this time? Or something that you have done growing up? Share with us, we would love to hear from you.

 

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

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